It’s MLK Day and there’s a march in downtown,
And a recitation of his words of light;
I want to go, but I have made a promise
To step back and try to paint and write.
I’m torn, of course, because I want to “show up”,
To say “I get it” … even though I’m white.
Hesitantly I pick up my paintbrush
To birth an image floating in my head,
It’s a young black man lying on the pavement
Under yellow tape. He’s been shot dead
By hired-to-protect (from what now, was it?)
His blood flows onto pavement, staining red.
He has names (although I hate to mention)
Trayvon, Eric, Tamir, Ramarley.
I sketch his head lying on cold pavement,
(Walter, John , Oscar, Jordan, Freddie)
I sketch his shoulders, and then I correct them
(Philando, Mario, Fred, Jonathon, Andy.)
I choose alizarin crimson for the bleeding,
And remember just in time a pink highlight;
For his hoodie, grey (as though it’s faded)
The neck string on the street makes it look right.
The hair and head take longest; many colors,
And just around the neck, the t-shirt. White.
For the tape, it’s hansa yellow with black letters
I show the “Do not cross” to leave no doubt;
This tape holds back a rising, righteous anger,
“He didn’t do nothin’!” someone’s heard to shout.
Plastic divides the sanctioned from the lawless;
It holds some people in, and others out.
I hear the typing, typing, typing, typing
The making of reports that silence sound,
Pronouncements made by all of the officials,
The prosecutor wears a frigid frown,
The Chief says they’ll investigate the matter,
But meanwhile all the protests must shut down.
And with the sleight-of-word he’s soon transformed,
His shy eyes, smile, and self-effacing shrug,
Are now reframed in new and twisted lighting,
He’s magically become a dangerous thug.
A predator, they say he had a gun,
Though none was found in car or under rug.
And as I paint I want to resurrect him,
As Jesus could, up from his stone-cold dead,
Restore him to his life and grieving family,
Let them hear again things that he once said,
To give him back his now-lost, unknown future;
A feat I fail, and so I paint instead.
Applying wash, there rises undetected,
Discomfort in my leafy, seaside bower;
Far away from sirens I sit painting
The scene of someone else’s final hour.
I fathom that I’ll never know this picture;
Within which it is I with all the power.
Who am I to paint this fallen human,
Lifted by privilege to my safe, country space?
A sheltered world this boy no longer threatens,
This now-statistic, leaving little trace,
Along with all of those who went before him…
When will I turn to look him in the face?